How To Change Your Business Process and Preserve Your Culture

Picture this: A company has tackled a core function the same way, with the same team, for years. It’s time to make a change, and the shift is announced with great fanfare. Months later, the company has reverted to the old processes.

What happened?

Changing a business process is tough, and companies often struggle. When they do, culture could be at the heart of the problem.

What is a Core Process Transformation?

Scan a new employee training manual, and you’ll see company processes explained in detail. Some are minor, housekeeping-related tasks. But others involve production, customer service or team structure. These are, in most cases, core processes.

“Core business processes can be decomposed into subprocesses, tasks, and steps that show increasing specificity about how the process is carried out,” explains knowledge management consultant Bernie Palowitch. Core processes are both complex and critical, and businesses build plenty of infrastructure around them.

Changing any part of a core process takes time, consideration and study. “Make sure not to make changes just for the sake of it. Before embarking on a journey of transformation, be sure to have a solid business plan. Identify the areas of the business that need to be updated and put a plan in place for its execution,” says Abigail Phillips, digital product development manager at business support services firm Williams Lea.

Even after you’ve determined a potential change, your study isn’t complete. Successful leaders also examine the company’s culture.

What Role Does Company Culture Play?

When leaders hope to shift a core process, they may consider the company culture part of the problem that must be solved. That isn’t always wise.

“Skilled change managers, conscious of organizational change management best practices, always make the most of their company’s existing culture. Instead of trying to change the culture itself, they draw emotional energy from it. They tap into the way people already think, behave, work, and feel to provide a boost to the change initiative,” write DeAnne Aguirre and Micah Alpern at Strategy + Business.

You must have a deep understanding of how your employees work, think and behave. You should dig into how teams work together (and when they might work against one another). With that understanding, you can fit your new process right into your company without struggle. 

If, conversely, you use a process shift to deal with a troublesome aspect of culture, your efforts might be a little less successful. For example, if you hope to add a new process to your company to keep teams busier so they will gossip less, you’re not working within your culture. You’re trying to change culture through process. 

“The change being considered should be in alignment with the overall values, vision, and mission of the enterprise,” says Mike Myatt, chairman of N2Growth and author of “Hacking Leadership.”

To make that goal a reality, you’ll need to understand your company’s culture at a granular level. That should happen before you roll out any new initiative to your staff.


Do You Understand Your Company’s Culture?

Defining a company’s culture isn’t easy, but it’s necessary work worth doing well.

Leadership consultant Brent Gleeson defines organizational culture as a set of behaviors and values a team shares that they develop due to the time they spend together.

Some might use lofty language to describe a company’s official culture, but every person working there interprets the culture a little differently. And they preserve that knowledge with the work they do (and how they work) each day. And it’s not static: In their study, researchers Theresa Schmiedel, Jan vom Brocke, and Jan Recker found that a company’s culture can shift by location, workgroup, and/or department.

Gleeson notes that defining culture is critical during times of changing core processes, as skipping that step can mean dooming the project to failure. “Any restructuring, reengineering, process improvement, customer-centric strategy or quality improvement program has to truly be ingrained in the culture to avoid regression and the ‘old way of doing things’ re-emerging,” he writes.

Some companies tackle their research by hiring consultants. Outsiders interview employees, supervise workflows and read through company procedure manuals. Their report gives company leaders a good idea of the current cultural landscape.

Others hold informal staff surveys to take the pulse of your company’s culture. To do this effectively, make sure the questions you ask are directly related to the change you need to make. For example, don’t ask if people have opportunities for leadership if you hope to cut overhead and managerial positions.

Once the survey results are in, act quickly, say Laszlo Bock, cofounder and CEO of Humu. “When you don’t act on what your people have told you are the most important issues they face, your company’s culture doesn’t just stay the same.”

Communicating Both Culture and Change

Once you understand your company’s culture, and you think you understand the potential impact of your proposed change, it’s time to start talking. While you might be tempted to open the conversation with instructions, you might get better results with dialogue.

“How information is communicated to employees during a change matters more than what information is communicated. A lack of audience empathy when conveying news about an organizational transformation can cause it to fail,” says Patti Sanchez, chief strategy officer at graphic design and communication company Duarte.
Changing your approach to communicating information so that it is better received doesn’t require much more than giving an explanation of what you’re proposing and why.

The team at the Center for Creative Leadership explains, “Successful leaders communicated the ‘what’ and the ‘why.’ Leaders who explained the purpose of the change and connected it to the organization’s values or explained the benefits created stronger buy-in and urgency for the change.”

Leading Teams Through Change

To transform your company’s processes, you must do more than talk. You must also ensure that your teams take action. Give them a reason to support your work, and they’re more likely to take ownership.

“The most essential tip for successful change management is also the simplest: Include your employees from the beginning. A top-down approach doesn’t work,” says the team at staffing and consulting services provider Robert Half.

Launch your change discussion early, and let your employees weigh in with concerns. During conversations, staffers may bring up valid, culture-killing flaws in your game change plan. Keep an open mind and listen carefully.

“At its core, resistance to change is a label we apply to people who seem unwilling to accept a change. But for the most part, it isn’t the change itself that people resist. People resist change because they believe they will lose something of value or fear they will not be able to adapt to the new ways,” says Susanne Madsen, project leadership coach.

Don’t shoulder this process alone. Let your junior managers help guide the process through meetings with their team members and staff. Their conversations can help individual employees understand how their role fits into the initiative.


Dealing with Resistance to Change

Sometimes, employees bring up valid points to counter change. Other times, they resist due to fear about any change, even if it’s helpful. Stack the deck, when you can, by getting the right people on board early. And deal with problems that arise in a clear and compassionate way.

“Naturally, some teams may adapt to change faster than others. If possible, roll out process changes in stages to those likely adapters. Once they have tested the new processes, it will be easier and less risky to promote them elsewhere,” says Sarah Berkowski, vice president of marketing at business management solution Tradify.

You may come across some staff that simply will not accept the change, no matter what you say or do. Before you head into a public battle, take a breath.

“Battling detractors is risky; should you lose, it could mean the end of your initiative, and even if you win, it wastes your time and energy,” says John Hagel and John Seely Brown writing for Deloitte.
Look for ways to work with, instead of against, those people that oppose your plans. Listen to their concerns, and try to find common ground. If none is available, roll your plans out quickly to the people that embrace your ambitious ideas. When many people are in your corner, the plan starts to feel inevitable rather than optional. 

Commit to the Process

To make the new plan part of your company, you’ll need to train your staff on the new policies. That’s how change begins, but it’s not where it ends.

“Training is important but not sufficient for implementing organizational change. As you all know, there is a burst of new behaviors following most training courses, but they soon die out as old habits come back,” says “Culture Rules!” author John R. Childress, a senior executive advisor on leadership, culture and strategy execution.

Make sure you’ve illuminated the change in a way your staff can understand. As change management consultant Daniel Lock puts it: “Good change leaders must be skilled at converting the ambiguous goals and plans into concrete, specific steps.”

Remember that your company’s culture can be defined, in part, as the steps employees take as they do their work. If you haven’t articulated the new business process into real-time instructions, you aren’t preserving your company’s culture.

And remember to keep all lines of communication open. Change is hard, and as an organization, you’re in this process together. 

“Involving people in change is not getting them into a room and telling then what is happening – it is collectively leaning into the unknown. It is stumbling together, failing together, and jointly working through processes. It is flows of communication, pockets of excellence; it is liberating brilliance throughout an organization,” explains Grahame Broadbelt, global head of communications, research, and development at Impact International.

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